Because it was there.
Some men climb mountains. Some men sail around the world in papyrus boats. Some men cross the Atlantic in hot-air balloons. Some men drive on the Palmetto Expressway at rush hour in Toyota Tercels. And when you ask them why they did it, what madness or passion or desire possessed them, they invariably shrug and say, "Because it was there."
Which is as good an explanation as any why New Times decided to send out a crew to attempt a death-defying exploit: to walk through the heart of Little Havana along Calle Ocho, from the Brickell Pontiac dealership at Seventh Avenue to La Carreta some 30 blocks west, imbibing a cafe cubano at every possible stop along the way.
If you're not cringing right now, you've obviously never tasted Cuban coffee. It's a little like espresso, in the sense that they're both warm and brown, and they're both made with coffee beans. However, scientists generally agree that espresso is a liquid. They're still undecided about cafe cubano, which has a consistency more akin to roofing tar. They have, however, determined that tar is less toxic and tastes better.
But you don't drink cafe because of the flavor. You drink it because it is a stimulant. Molten caffeine with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The preponderance of Cuban coffee joints is the main reason there are so few coke addicts in Little Havana.
Dr. George Diaz, a resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital, agreed to supervise the excursion and monitor the vital signs of the participants, proving that even doctors suffer lapses in judgment. An eager new arrival to the New Times staff who had recently transferred to Miami from Bogota, Colombia, and who for purposes of this article I'll refer to as "Stan," was quickly duped into participating: I told him it would be a great way to get to know Little Havana. I would be the second guinea pig, the "control." Stan had never tasted Cuban coffee but (prior to this excursion) enjoyed a good cup of java with breakfast now and then; my lifetime consumption of the hard stuff amounted to two or three fluid ounces, and the only coffee I've ever cared for is a flavor of ice cream at Haagen-Dazs.
The adventure began on an otherwise perfect Saturday afternoon A sunny, breezy, cool. On the shaded steps of Brickell Pontiac, Dr. Diaz checked our vital signs. Stan's blood pressure registered 140/90 and his pulse rate was 80. My initial readings were 105/70 and 60. Dr. Diaz deemed all of these "normal."
Vernon, an employee of the dealership, asked the doctor to check his blood pressure, too. The result was alarmingly high A 200 over 120 A and Vernon revealed he had just run out of Procardia, his blood pressure medication. Dr. Diaz strongly recommended that he get his prescription refilled immediately. We hadn't even begun our serious research and we'd already saved a life!
Fred, a curious Pontiac pusher, joined the group to find out what was going on. When told of the scientific inquiry about to commence, he offered the following prediction:
"You'll be dialing 911 before you reach 27th Avenue."
Thanking Fred for his encouragement, we made our way across Calle Ocho to La Familia Cafeteria for our first cafe cubano.
Like most of the family-run cafeterias in Little Havana, this one has a small lunch counter and a smattering of tables inside. A window opens onto the sidewalk for walk-up traffic. A "se necesita empleada" (help wanted) sign was taped to the door -- the first of many we would encounter. Recession? What recession? The Cuban coffee business is booming. Plenty of work to be had in the restaurants and bodegas of Little Havana.
We ordered dos cafecitos and the waitress was about to pour the ooze from a tiny stainless steel pitcher into a pair of traditional three-quarter-ounce white plastic cups (part of cafe cubano's mystique derives from the tradition of elegantly sipping it from these petite vessels) when we mentioned that we were reporters from New Times. The woman abruptly tossed out the old coffee and brewed a fresh batch. The power of the press!
Stan lost his cafe cubano virginity at La Familia. He described the experience as intense and emotional, maybe even a little painful. He sipped it tentatively, ignoring the advice he had been given before we'd left the office A to knock it back in one quick slug. I watched him shudder. I took mine like cough medicine, without inhaling. Dr. Diaz wisely declined a shot.
We had to persuade the staff at La Familia to accept payment. They had somehow reached the conclusion that we were reviewing the mud. (As if anyone could pay us enough to do something that foolhardy for a living!) We judged it best not to risk compromising the integrity of our work with the appearance of impropriety; we insisted on paying. Besides, I explained, the paper was picking up the tab.
The waitress quoted a price of 30 cents apiece. Such a deal! What else can you buy for 30 cents these days? I handed the lady a single and motioned for her to keep the change, recklessly leaving a 67 percent gratuity.
To avoid the embarrassment of further bribery attempts and coffee switching, Dr. Diaz suggested not mentioning the New Times affiliation until after the battery acid had been guzzled. That wasn't necessary at our second stop, El Cofi*al, however, where the counter woman was far less sociable than the folks at La Familia. Without so much as a questioning glance at the presence of such a motley crew at her window, she produced two four-ounce plastic cups, filled to the brim with thick, brown sludge. Thoughtfully, she also provided two similar-size glasses of water to wash it down with. Once again the cost was 30 cents apiece. Once again New Times tipped magnanimously.
This oversize second drink had a noticeable damping effect on Stan's enthusiasm. "This isn't fair. I had a cup of coffee for breakfast!" he whined.
"Oh, shut up!" I snapped. "What kind of reporter starts off his morning with coffee when he knows he's supposed to drink 30 cups of it that afternoon?"
Privately, I was beginning to wonder if Stan had the cojones (right stuff) for a job like this. We shuffled up to the window of a nameless restaurant, whose primary distinguishing feature was a sign advertising Desayuno Completo (complete breakfast) for $1.29. Carmen, the fortyish Cuban woman behind the counter, immediately defused our crankiness with her matronly concern. As she served the cafe in demitasse cups with saucers, she advised us to just take one sip at each place. Who would know how much we really drank?
We were beginning to wonder the same thing.
Carmen stalled to give us time to reconsider. She told us the Italian-made cafe machine cost $4500 new. At 30 cents a shot, that translated to a minimum break-even point of 15,000 cups, excluding water, sugar, coffee beans, labor, electricity, and the like. Carmen estimated that the place sold between 100 and 200 tacitas per day, which meant that the cafe cubano machine was generating from $30 to $60 per day in gross revenue. Multiply those figures by the hundreds of restaurants and cafeterias serving the sticky liquid throughout Dade County and you could easily be talking about an industry generating millions of dollars in gross revenue annually, 30 cents at a time.
Several other customers arrived, so we thanked Carmen and pressed on to our fourth establishment, Rocky Cafeteria. If it weren't for the coffee, this could have been an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon.
"Good morning! How do you feel today?" enthused Rocky's unnaturally perky Honduran waitress in lightly accented English. She beamed at us from behind a display case with a menu offering everything from pastelitos de guayaba (guava pastries) to fileticos de pescado (fish fillets).
"Where are you from? Canada?" she asked as she whipped up a batch. "You look like tourists. Americans don't drink Cuban coffee. Too strong."
Rocky shares a common wall with a shoe store. There is a long plate-glass window between the two. Talk about bizarre ambiance A shoe shoppers and diners munching croquetas eye each other warily through the pane. Initially, Stan mistook the window for a mirror, and was startled when he saw a fat old man in knee socks struggling to squeeze his feet into a pair of loafers three sizes too small.
La Parilla was next. This was the first cafeteria we discovered with what we would come to realize was a standard piece of equipment for restaurants between 10th and 27th avenues A the five-gallon Igloo cooler filled with water so sidewalk cafe cubano drinkers can wash down the magma. The Igloo tanks drastically simplified the task of locating coffee stops A we just looked for the bright yellow or orange plastic tubs in the window.
La Parilla's counter was attended by an attractive young Peruvian woman with an unaffected smile, who engaged Stan in a lively, flirtatious conversation until she spotted my microcassette recorder whirring away. Before she clammed up, Stan was able to elicit the shocking revelation that the real money to be made on Calle Ocho was selling beer during Carnaval.
Dr. Diaz advised us that we were acquiring a putrid green tint to our flesh and insisted that we go inside to relax and check our vital signs.
Johnny Ventura squawked from a jukebox in the corner. Two rough-looking men playing pool at a table near the back door glared at us menacingly. But when Dr. Diaz started taking our blood pressure, their expressions changed to concern. Amazingly, Stan's blood pressure had actually fallen to 130/80; mine had risen slightly to 110/70.
"Hmmmm," said Dr. Diaz, "Could be a bad sign."
"A bad sign? What does that mean?" Stan shot back, clearly panicking. "Could the caffeine in our bodies build up to a lethal level?"
"No, you'd vomit before it got to that point," the good doctor deadpanned.
It took the promise of solid food to convince Stan to continue the mission.
The Restaurant Pescaderia owns a big, blocky desk telephone that looks like it was salvaged from a motel 40 years ago. A sign on the wall reads, "Por favor agradezco profundamente no me hablan de politicas. Deseo felices en este sitio. (I would profoundly appreciate it if you wouldn't talk politics. I want happy people around here.)"
Not to worry, the counter woman told us. There wasn't much trouble until the old Cuban men started getting drunk and waxing nostalgic. Stan glanced around nervously. There were old Cuban men everywhere.
"Don't worry," I reassured him, "it's too early in the day for them to drink." Of course I had no idea what I was talking about, but I said it with authority and Stan bought it. (We decided against eating there, however.)
As we walked away, Stan expressed a desire to "move things" A the heavier the better. Dr. Diaz gently suggested that perhaps we should limit our quest to only one side of the street.
The San Jose Supermarket's cafes were huge, but also smooth and weak. Almost like real coffee. "Midnight Train to Georgia" blasted from a loud but tinny speaker, rivaled in volume only by occasional shouts of "Camarones!" from a guy parked around the corner, selling shrimp out of the back of his Bronco. A buck fifty a pound if you brought your own container.
La Reina Cafeteria and Supermarket made up for the weakness of San Jose's glorified American coffee by serving the cafecitos straight up A no sugar. Pure cafe cubano so potent Stan and I both choked when we tasted it. A shady-looking character eating a pastelito laughed derisively. Bad vibes were accruing. We wanted to leave but could not remember whether we had paid. (Dr. Diaz cocked an eyebrow and looked concerned but said nothing. Was memory loss a symptom of caffeine poisoning? The doctor wasn't talking. Given Stan's skittishness, I decided to hold my tongue until I could ask Dr. D. privately.) The counterman ignored our repeated attempts to attract his attention. Finally, we just walked away, hoping an irate proprietor with a loaded gun wasn't zeroing in on a spot between our shoulder blades.
"Camarones!" was all we heard.
Las Palmas's coffee went down uneventfully, and soon we were quaffing our tenth cup at Eddie's (motto: "Hoy no fio, ma*ana si" A I don't give credit today, try me tomorrow) and settling down to a lunch of swordfish sandwiches with mounds of plantains, and rice and moros. Incredibly, Stan's blood pressure had continued to drop to 110/70, and his pulse to 70. My vital signs hadn't changed. Our medical expert could offer no satisfactory explanation for the calming effect caffeine and sugar were having on Stan's cardiovascular system.
Nonetheless, Dr. Diaz was a star at Eddie's. Three patrons, all fiftyish men with bloodshot eyes and wild hair who looked as though they had seen the inside of a taberna or two, wanted their blood pressure read. They scored identical 100/70s. Neither Stan nor I said anything at the time, but we were beginning to have serious doubts about the reliability of Dr. Diaz's equipment. As if he were reading our minds, the doctor smiled, held up the inflatable armband, and said, "Eckerd's."
The grateful manager of Eddie's, unaccustomed to so much excitement inside his eatery, rewarded us with 1993 "Season's greetings from Eddie's!" calendars.
Clutching our valuable gifts, we headed back up Calle Ocho, pausing at the El Credito cigar factory to pick up a couple of the finest stogies rolled outside of Cuba. Business is booming at El Credito; their biggest problem is finding experienced tabaqueros. According to an El Credito employee we met outside the San Jose Supermarket, there's a three-month backlog for wholesalers around the U.S. Fortunately for us, the store maintains a small supply for over-the-counter sales to their loyal local patrons. What better way to truly experience Little Havana than to stroll down Calle Ocho with a hand-rolled cigar in one hand and a Cuban coffee in the other?
And what better time to do it than during a rally commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion? We wandered blindly into just such a celebration. A crowd of several hundred, predominantly male and middle-age, milled about in front of a portable stage where invasion veterans in three-piece suits and camouflage fatigue hats made impassioned speeches and waved Cuban and American flags. We moved with the flow, such as it was, passing a restaurant with a poster of a bikini-clad Kathy Willets checking her Christmas list next to another placard featuring a silhouette of Castro as viewed through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle.
Flag vendors, churro salesmen, and camouflaged pamphleteers lined the periphery of the crowd. Stan tried to buy a small Cuban banner, but the cost A four bucks A seemed excessive. The disdainful salesman pointed to a building where he told Stan he could find flags for one dollar in a room on the third floor.
The building was single-story.
The flag vendor had not realized he was dealing with a man with the caffeine of ten cafe cubanos circulating through his veins. Feigning stupidity, Stan returned and said (in Spanish) something to the effect of, "I couldn't find the third floor. Could you show me?" Words were exchanged. The flag man's face turned scarlet and he stomped off into the crowd, ranting as he went.
It seemed like a good time to put some distance between ourselves and the crowd. We walked for several minutes without stopping, passing four or five cafeterias in the process. When we finally looked back, the flag vendor was standing at the edge of the crowd, glaring at us and gesturing angrily. Luckily, no one paid him any mind.
The adrenaline rush of our brush with death (or was it the caffeine?) carried us through our next five stops. We made two important discoveries: the McDonald's doesn't sell Cuban coffee; Dunkin' Donuts used to until their machine broke.
The owner of La Guarina drained a cup with us and offered to buy another round. We politely declined, but noted that he was the only cafeteria or bodega owner to sample his own coffee. Less encouraging was the observation that our saliva was now dark brown. "Medically speaking," Dr. Diaz opined, "brown spit is probably not a good sign."
The light at Seventeenth Avenue was red but we weren't about to wait for it. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! We jaywalked over to the Santa Barbara Cafeteria, distinguished by an elaborate mural of its patron saint painted on the east wall of the exterior. As we sidled up to the counter, we overheard customers inside placing bets on whether we spoke English or Spanish. We wondered aloud if Santa Barbara herself brewed the coffee, as it was easily the best we had tasted, sweet and smooth.
But Stan was turning belligerent. "I'm becoming more and more irritated with you two," he warned us, entirely without provocation. Dr. Diaz insisted on testing us before going any further. Stan's pulse had ticked back up to 75, but his blood pressure was a steady 110/70. My pulse was 60 and my blood pressure had fallen slightly to 100/70. Cafe cubano -- miracle cure for hypertension!
Stan was anxious to get moving again. The cigar had left a nasty aftertaste, and he left us cooling our heels while he purchased a bottle of Listerine and a pack of Rolaids. Dr. Diaz and I quietly conferred and decided it was probably best if Stan took a little coffee break (a break from coffee, that is). Freed from the responsibility of actually having to consume the stuff, Stan charged up the street, leaving us in his wake. When we stopped for me to sample a given cafeteria's wares, Stan would take off before I had a chance to pay my tab. Oddly enough, I didn't feel the least bit hyper or energized. I wondered whether Stan's behavior was psychosomatic.
I scarfed five cafes solo before Stan rejoined the binge. The rest of our journey was a blur of Igloo coolers, Bustelo beans, and little plastic cups. Could you judge the quality of the product by the lack of coffee stains on the sidewalk? Was there some mystical connection between cafe cubano and Colada Bang, a syrupy libation with a hint of pi*a colada flavoring, which is omnipresent on Calle Ocho? Would the flag vendor show up, like the rednecks at the end of Easy Rider, to teach us a lesson? Each of these questions seemed incredibly urgent for a moment, then was forgotten utterly.
Casa Roman had a help wanted sign accompanied by a magic marker profile of a ponytailed adolescent, presumably to give job seekers a clue as to how to bob their hair before applying. We passed a peluqueria offering toupees from $29.95. The worst coffee we tasted was brewed by a newfangled digital machine. Stan developed a rash on the back of his left leg, which Dr. Diaz likened to an alcoholic's delirium tremens. I felt lightheaded. Stan's speech had been picking up speed for a while; now mine was beginning to rival it.
Ayestaran, at 27th Avenue, killed us. They served thick and bitter cafe in huge glasses. We should have known better A forget the cooler; Ayestaran has its own water fountain next to the walk-up window. After 26 cafe cubanos in a bit more than four hours, I had reached my saturation point. Stan had hit the wall, too. We couldn't bring ourselves to force down another one until we got to La Carreta, where we were joined by uniformed members of the Miami Police Department's Street Narcotics Team. We savored the irony of the anti-drug squad getting jacked up on caffeine and sugar prior to hitting the street. Woe to the unsuspecting crack dealer who runs afoul of these guys after a couple hits of Calle Ocho brown.
While Dr. Diaz babbled something about our behaving erratically, our blood pressure and pulse rates remained low. I felt nauseated and a little dizzy, but certainly not intoxicated, or even unusually energetic. In fact, Stan and I agreed among ourselves (in spite of the doctor's strongly voiced opinion to the contrary) that the massive quantities of cafe cubano we'd ingested had had disappointingly little effect.
It was a thought I continued to ponder as I darted in and out of traffic on my way home. I couldn't recall Dixie Highway ever moving so slowly. I ducked into my house just long enough to change clothes and snap at my wife when she asked me why I was talking so fast.
It was then that I experienced a most unpleasant sensation, like that feeling you get when you've consumed too much alcohol but right before everything starts spinning. What a rip-off A I hadn't even realized I was buzzing until now, when I was beginning to crash. I wanted to throw up and get it over with. I decided to go jogging instead.
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Big mistake. My legs felt heavy and rubbery. I ambled around the neighborhood lethargically for half an hour or so before collapsing onto my front lawn. My perspiration, which usually has no discernible odor (none to me, at least), was incredibly rank. Even my dog, Trigger, who always tries to lick my arms and legs when I come home sweaty, kept his distance.
Back at work on Monday, Stan avoided me. When I finally cornered him, he admitted that he, too, hadn't really felt the full effect of the cafe until he got home. He'd argued with his spouse. He'd tried to throw up but couldn't. He hadn't been able to sleep. He hated coffee. He hated me.
I shrugged it off. I knew it had been worth the sacrifice. We had boldly gone where no man had gone before. We had tested the limits of human endurance. We had saved a human life and radically challenged modern medical science's understanding of the link between caffeine and blood pressure. We had insulted a street vendor on his home turf and lived to tell the tale. What were nausea, lack of sleep, and a little marital discord in the face of these accomplishments? I knew Stan would someday thank me when he was able to see the big picture.
Bienvenido a Miami, buddy.